Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Chipping Away at Teddy's (Defense) Legacy

Ted Kennedy was laid to rest three days ago, and it looks like a favorite defense pork bill will follow him to the grave.

Barely 48 hours after Kennedy was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, the Obama Administration renewed threats to veto a defense spending bill that funds one of the Senator's pet projects--the so-called "alternative" engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. According to Air Force Times, Defense Secretary Robert Gates made the threat Monday, during a visit to the JSF production facility in Fort Worth, Texas.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, touring the Lockheed Martin Corp. plant where the first of the $100 million planes are being assembled, said there is no need for two engine suppliers.

"We have looked at the business case a number of times," Gates said. "The general conclusion is that it would cost several billion dollars in addition," and cause headaches for production down the road.

In an era of defense penny-pinching, Gates said, "We feel strongly there is not a need for the second engine."

While we've faulted Mr. Gates and his boss, President Obama, for many of their defense cuts, this one makes eminent sense. The alternative powerplant, the General Electric F136, offers no improvement in performance over the Pratt & Whitney F135, the standard engine for F-35. Producing another engine would create more jobs, but it would take DoD years to recoup the additional investment. B one etimate, the Pentagon (and taxpayers) wouldn't reach the break-even point on the alternate engine until "the late 2020s," more than a decade into the JSF's operational career.

Moreover, there is an established precedent for awarding a single-source contract for advanced fighter engines. Variants of the F/A-18 Hornet, which form the backbone of the Navy's fighter fleet, are powered by the GE F414, while the Air Force F-22 utilizes the Pratt & Whitney F119. In fact, the JSF's F135 is a derivative of the F-22 engine, which will reach 100,000 flight hours in 2009.

Critics claim that a second engine would help mitigate risks associated with a single-source engine. They note the F135 has failed twice on test stands, and continued reliance on the Pratt & Whitney engine could mean problems for operational JSF units. In response, supporters of the F135 claim the manufacturer is implementing fixes to correct the problems. They also observe that less than 20% of military aircraft groundings over the last 20 years have been the result of engine problems.

Availability is also a key issue for the GE engine. Various studies say the F136 is at least four years behind the Pratt & Whitney power plant in terms of development. As the JSF enters a critical period of testing and low-rate production, Lockheed-Martin (and its various customers) can hardly afford to wait for GE to "perfect" the F136.

It will be interesting to see if Kennedy's Congressional allies put up much of a fight for the GE engine. Interestingly, few have mentioned the only viable argument for continuing an alternative engine, i.e., thrust requirements for the Short Take-off/Vertical Landing (STOVL) versions of the F-35, built for the Royal Air Force and the U.S. Marine Corps.

Like most fighters, the JSF has picked up weight through design changes during the development process. These changes leave the F135 with little room to meet STOVL performance requirements for RAF and USMC models, particularly if the F-35 continues to "grow." The newer F136 design provides more thrust for STOVL profiles, but those consideration may not be a show-stopper. As Aviation Week's Bill Sweetman observed last year, most JSF customers don't need the STOVL feature; for them, the Pratt & Whitney engine is more than sufficient.

Reading the procurement tea leaves is sometimes difficult, but we'd say the F136 program will finally die in the months ahead. Without Ted Kennedy and his earmarks, it will be difficult (if not impossible) for GE to preserve the alternate engine.


tfhr said...

Waiting for the Speaker of the House to call for a F136 retrofit on her personal Gulfstream, "The Spirit of San Fran Nan".

Ed Rasimus said...

The one standard engine option is a no-brainer. We've been through it already with the F-16 two-engine option. That never worked out. Get the airplanes in sufficient numbers to have a real AF and the engines in sufficient quantity to keep them flying and sufficent weapons to make them operationally effective.

We built tens of thousands of Merlins for Mustangs and they didn't all come out of a Rolls-Royce plant.

Yet, one engine or two, I really doubt we will see more than a few hundred F-35s. There isn't going to be 3000+. That's a Gates fantasy that even he doesn't believe.

tfhr said...

Ed Rasimus,

I think much of the notion of high production rates is based on a shaky promise of foreign sales.